Ernest Leon Wheeler, born July 2nd, 19281 in Little Rock, AR,2 3 was a Negro baseball player from 1948-1950 and a minor league baseball player in 1954. He was the brother of Sam Wheeler, the nephew of Charles Spearman Sr. and the cousin of Fred Spearman and Charles Spearman Jr..
Wheeler was the son of Samuel Edgar Wheeler and Ella (nee Catledge) Wheeler.1 He grew up in Little Rock, AR, and later moved to St. Louis, MO, where he became a star athlete at Vashon High School. Afterward, he attended Stowe College in St. Louis during the 1946-1947 and 1947-1948 school years, participating on the football, basketball and track teams.
Wheeler was a left-handed outfielder with good speed. As a teenager in July 1947, he participated in a baseball tryout hosted by the St. Louis Cardinals. Despite impressing scouts with his defense at first base, Wheeler and two other black players, including future New York Yankee Elston Howard, were denied contracts and given little hope of being signed by the Cardinals in the future.4 Meanwhile, Wheeler played in the Tandy Industrial Baseball League in St. Louis5 and his older brother Sam played with the Harlem Globetrotters baseball club, a Negro barnstorming team owned by famed sporting promoter Abe Saperstein. After the 1948 spring school year, Wheeler joined the affiliated Cincinnati Crescents, another Negro barnstorming team operated by Saperstein.6 As the summer progressed, Leon was shifted to the Globetrotters' roster where he joined his brother and finished the remainder of the season.
In the fall of 1948, Wheeler transferred to Lincoln University in Jefferson City, MO where he continued to play basketball and run track. Returning to the Globetrotters in the summer of 1949, Wheeler reportedly hit .403 with five home runs in 113 games, though this was almost certainly an embellishment.7 Wheeler's final season with the Globetrotters came the following season after he graduated from Lincoln in the spring of 1950. He became an educator and also enlisted in the US Army, playing baseball at Ft. Riley in Kansas and Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana.8 In June 1954, he was discharged from service and signed by the Burlington Bees of the class B Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League. He played with Burlington until late July when he was released in order to return to teaching in the fall.9 In 38 games with Burlington, he hit only .226. Around the same time as his release, he was reportedly offered an opportunity to play with Pine Bluff Judges in the Cotton States League and thereby becoming the team's first black player. However, he declined.10
Wheeler later earned a master's degree from Washington University in St. Louis and continued to work as an educator for many years.11 He died in February 1977 at age 4812 and was buried on February 12th in Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis.13
"Leon Wheeler, who was a candidate for first base, without doubt was the outstanding candidate for first base. Even some whites were surprised he wasn't chosen. He showed everything in the practice drills' speed, accurate throwing arm, fast kick of the sack, general all-around baseball acumen and hitting prowess. Wheeler is left-handed and stands five feet teen inches and weighs 160. He is a former Vashon High athlete and at present one of the outstanding athletes in Stowe College. "Sonny" as he is called is hopeful, but has a feeling he will not receive a letter [from the St. Louis Cardinals]."14
"[Cincinnati Crescent player] Leon Wheeler, Philander Smith college of Little Rock, cf."15
"Leon Wheeler, first baseman and outfield, who will join the [Harlem Globetrotters baseball] team upon completion of courses at Lincoln University."16
"Leon Wheeler, Lincoln university senior, track star and basketball player for varsity squads, recently completed a successful baseball season with the Harlem Globe Trotters of Chicago, famous professional baseball club. Wheeler joined the Globe Trotters immediately after the end of last semester, as a regular center fielder, playing in all 113 games at home and on the road, the wiry Wheeler batted .403 which included five homeruns. Also playing with the Globe Trotters from this area was Sunny Williams, speedball product of Jefferson City Eagles. Wheeler and Williams reside in St. Louis Williams was a strikeout king with a record of 15 won and one lost. In a game at Pueblo, Colo,; Sunny struck out 21 men. Pitcher Joe Bankhead, brother of Dan Bankhead former member of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Sam Wheeler, outfield brother of Leon, were other members of the team. Leon told of the inspiration he got from the faces of Lincolnites who chanced to see him in auction during the season. He recalls such faces as Mr. Parnell of the faculty, Nifty Simmons, resident graduate, and other students cheering for him and Sunny as he smashed out two hits.”17
"An outfielder, Leon Wheeler, will join the club on June 22 following his discharge from service. He will be awarded a contract if Manager Jim Crandall decides he will benefit the club. He has played at Ft. Riley, Kas., and this season has been with the Ft. Benjamin Harrison base team in Indiana. He is a rookie, extremely fast, 5-11, 165, bats left, and is a graduate of Lincoln U. of Jefferson City, Mo."18
Statistics at Baseball-Reference.com.
16 Helena Independent, 5/15/1949